The center must hold.
“‘I’ve read your book,’ my mother said. ‘I was very impressed.’ The frozen smile did not fade.
“‘Thank you.’ I nodded.
“‘I just have this one question,’ she said, digging for a cigarette in a mostly empty pack, having put down the book by now on the sofa cushion. She lit the cigarette, taking her time; she was in no hurry. She inhaled, and as she asked her question, smoke blew out of her nose and mouth. “‘My question is, when are you going to write a happy poem?’”
– From Burning Down the House by Charles Baxter
You know what it is like to be young and feel deeply. Pain is a kindle for writing poems, but for some, that early pain sparks awful poetry. Perhaps Baxter’s mother was hoping for a better poem, and used the word “happy” instead. More likely, she, like many parents, had set herself the standard for being a good parent: to have a happy child.
In the 1990s in Bombay, I lived with two beautiful women, both gifted mimics and storytellers. The first, my grandmother, born in 1924, wrote rhymes about friends and local birds in charming Indian settings. She recited the pieces in the family circle. She managed the household competently and did not appear to have any ambition to publish. In fact, she did not articulate any kind of desire.
As she aged, the lack of purpose appeared to erode her cheer, especially given her lack of control over her own children’s happiness. This was the un-joying of older age which Betty Friedan had already christened "the problem that has no name" in The Feminine Mystique. When asked by a doctor why she was depressed, my grandmother once said, “How can I not be? My daughter is divorced.”
My mother, born in 1952, was a copywriter, and when I was in high school, a sought-after English tutor. After a couple of spells as a housewife, she had really come into her own in the 1990s, acknowledged for her creativity and ability to be a terrifically fun party guest. She wrote for the Times of India, and made her life in Bombay’s theater and literary circles. Strangers would ask her if she was the Avi Shroff of the Backword — a wry take on Bombay life — on the back page of the Times.
My mother was a parent first, and attended to that task with a steady hand. A humorous, talented writer, a unique illustrator and paper sculptor, she never really embraced her potential to have an artistic career. When her editor used to call from the Times, her cheerful disposition would give way to a panicked sprint to the finish line.
She had slipped into the identity of parent in her early 20s, and that was her underpinning. Early on she had articulated some of her desires — to be a doctor, for example — but her blazing personality was squashed by an ugly patriarchy (her father suggested secretarial school) and she fell too easily into homemaking.
From the time I was little, my mother and her college friends reminisced about their English professor at St. Xavier’s, Eunice de Souza. Mum often mimicked Eunice’s withering retort to over-eager students: "Aren't you precious!" Mum must have been about 16 when she met Eunice, who was in her 20s and already on her way to becoming a legend.
In the late 1960s, Father Fuster, an Italian Jesuit, rode his motorcycle into college in leather pants, driving the girls crazy, and everyone was keeping tabs on sexy Ms. de Souza’s love life. When she first came onto the literary scene, Eunice’s voice struck out like a warning bell. She took on the subject of women’s desires and delivered poems like razor-cuts. In her “Advice to women”: “Keep cats / if you want to learn to cope with / the otherness of lovers.”
Mum, just home from an all-girls boarding school, was not especially interested in her studies. Still, Eunice’s literature classes caught her attention, and she broke a record with her lit grades. I imagine Eunice liked this brilliant teenager who ended up failing to heed her “Advice to women.”
Shortly after she graduated, my mother rushed into marrying my father, who subjected his young bride to textbook infidelity. Divorce was actually a sign that my mother was choosing to be happy and had the courage to leave an explosive marriage. I had never seen my mother more vital as she was between her marriages.
When I arrived at St. Xavier’s, I was one of the first of the next generation to march up to Ms. de Souza. I announced who I was, my mother’s kid. De Souza remembered Mum from two decades before, and told me to call her Eunice. She embraced me with so much affection that we became friends instantly, and I found in her a role model of a working writer.
In the enormous staff room, overlooking the courtyard through Gothic windows, I felt especially rooted. This was where both my parents and grandparents had gone to college, an institution founded by German Jesuits in 1869. I came to feel my place in a global world, in the company of other writers, even though I did not know that was, in fact, what I had to be to survive in the world.
Eunice was the savant-en-résidence at St. Xavier’s, disparaging of young hopefuls who brought their creative work to her. “Just because you feel deeply, doesn’t mean you can write a poem.” Delivered with her signature brand of sexy, faking a feline coolness, her generosity was sometimes veiled by cigarette smoke. She struck fear in the faint-hearted, but it was only an immense intuition for bullshit. Eunice handed out recommendations rarely, refusing (maybe even wrongly so) most of her students.
A year after Eunice de Souza’s (1940-2017) passing, I remember this remarkable Indian poet who broke taboos, especially those of her Catholic childhood. In “Sweet Sixteen”: “The preacher thundered: / Never go with a man alone / Never alone / and even if you’re engaged / only passionless kisses.”
Eunice embraced her gifts and told women like me: Find your voice. When I applied to Oxford, I felt buffered by her amazing recommendation, and when I got in on a scholarship, I thought I’d made it. When I returned and showed her my poetry manuscript that had been solicited by a publisher, she told me I wasn’t ready. She reminded me I was very young. I had found my voice in a few poems and needed to put aside the rest. Other Bombay poets disagreed with her, but I withdrew my manuscript.
For a few of Eunice’s students who married and had children, her life was perceived differently from the way I saw her. I hazard to say it was through the lens of upper-class privilege where women didn’t need to work, and, sometimes, neither did their husbands. These women worried about the struggles of Eunice’s single life, her hard commute, and her modest teaching salary.
“Poor thing,” I would hear them say, “She seems so bitter. I feel so sorry for her.” I never did. Judged from every angle, the brilliant artist was coming up short because some of her observers questioned if she was happy.
Writing is not only passion; it must ring true, it must be earned. It is mostly about tenacity and stamina. Eunice published four books of poetry, two novels, and edited many anthologies of poetry.
Publishing until the end of her life, Eunice’s intention to creativity signaled hope that when you do find your voice, you will discover a creative center, and that satisfaction exists within the creative process. What happens on the outside — children or a single life — is incidental to that center.
My favorite memories of Eunice are in her quaint Vakola apartment, bookshelves to the ceiling, her parrots loose, her eyes laughing, sometimes a dog or cat she’d rescued keeping her company. “I don’t cook,” she once said with her signature smile that suggested she’d nailed it and knew it. “I don’t care for it so I don’t do it.”
In her essay on Leïla Slimani in the New Yorker, Lauren Collins notes how Slimani’s character Myriam, the mother in Chanson Douce, refers to her own passing of the bar as a “joy,” “where so many other writers would have chosen pride.” Collins continues, “Under the cover of a sensational plot, Slimani is taking on another taboo subject: women’s desires.”
How strange to be talking about female desire as taboo in 2018.
Unlike Baxter’s mother, mine has never asked for me to write a happy poem. My mother also does not suppose that there is only one path for a woman. There were no caveats to her enjoyment of the delicious pleasure of Eunice, recognizing the immense project of parenting and how it is very hard to balance your life if you choose both.
I have always loved being my mother’s daughter. Part of that has meant that I also wanted to be a mother. That choice to straddle writing and parenting (and paid work; okay, I’m falling off the horse now) has not created balance. Each calling is possessive, sometimes ruinous. But desire, if articulated, brings pride and joy sometimes.
Leeya Mehta is a prize-winning poet and essayist, and author of The Towers of Silence. She is an editor with Plume and Origins Journal. Mehta grew up in Bombay and was a Radhakrishnan Scholar at Oxford University. After travels through the Arctic borderlands and Japan, she lives in Washington, DC, where she works in international development. She has just finished a novel, Extinction.